Study Guide

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Line 1-4

By Emily Dickinson

Line 1-4

Line 1

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—

  • Dickinson opens right up with a command. "Hey, you. Do this," she says, and "do it this way."Maybe that's a little bossy or bold for a first line, but she certainly grabs our attention. 
  • The first line is basically telling us to tell the whole truth (what, are we on the stand, here?). This probably isn't anything new.
  • We've all heard our parents or teachers ask us to tell the whole truth before. 
  • What is different is that second part of the line: "but tell it slant—" Slant means, well, at an angle, not straight. So if we were to follow the directions of the first line, we'd be telling the whole truth, but not in a straight-up or direct sort of way. 
  • We should also mention that Dickinson kicks off this poem with two of her signature stylistic choices: capitalized words and long dashes. If you read a lot of Dickinson, you'll notice these two things dominate the page. What exactly their purpose is is up for some debate. 
  • In this line you'll see she's capitalized "Truth," even though it's not a proper noun and it's not the beginning of a sentence. So why bother? We'll have to see how it develops throughout the poem, but it certainly calls attention to the word. Maybe she's using the caps for emphasis—like, heads up, focus here people, pay attention! 
  • The dash has tripped up just about every critic and scholar since the publication of Dickinson's poetry, and your guess as to why she used it so frequently is probably as good as theirs. She often used it in place of conventional punctuation (like a period), though she did sometimes use conventional punctuation, too. The dash, as far as we can tell, works to both punctuate a phrase and propel readers to the next. So, we know to stop or pause at the dash, but it also works as kind of an arrow (just without the pointy tip), ushering us on to the next line.

Line 2

Success in Circuit lies

  • We get from the first line that we're not supposed to tell the whole truth directly (according to this poem), and this line lets us know how we are supposed to tell it, specifically "in Circuit."
  • By "in Circuit" we think Dickinson might mean to tell the truth in a roundabout way (not with electricity). Instead of blurting the truth out, you should dance around it gracefully instead (or just shuffle, if you can't dance), and that will deliver the message more successfully. 
  • Notice how Dickinson arranges this second line. She uses an inverted syntax (the rearranging of the normal order of words).
  • Instead of saying, more directly, "Success lies in Circuit," she flips it around to create a more musical, though more puzzling, sound. And of course, she's doing just what she's talking about. She's not saying it directly; she's dancing around the phrase gracefully as she delivers it. That's some fancy footwork, Ms. D.
  • "Circuit" is capitalized just like "Truth" is in the previous line. We should add "Circuit" to our VIP words and ideas list for this poem.

Line 3

Too bright for our infirm Delight

  • Vocab alert: "infirm" means physically or mentally weak. Here, Dickinson uses "infirm" to describe "Delight" (another capped word to add to the VIP list). So delight, in the context of this poem, is a fragile thing. 
  • Dickinson introduces a pronoun in this third line: "our." So we know the poem is told from the first person plural perspective (we, us, our, ours). But who does "our" represent? Does the speaker have a mouse in her pocket (and we're just assuming it's a she, since we have no other evidence). So far we've explored some big, but general, ideas. Our guess is that this is a very inclusive and general "our" that's designed to represent, well, everyone—all of us. That means you, too.

Line 4

The Truth's superb surprise

  • Yipes. The shock of the truth is too much to handle directly. Kind of like the sun, it's way too powerful to look at directly. This is why you've got to be clever about how you deliver the truth (remember, "Success in Circuit lies—"). 
  • Dickinson describes the truth as a "superb surprise," which both sounds nice (because of the sibilance, or alliteration of the S sound—check out "Sound Check" for more) and, well, is nice. We don't have to do a lot of guesswork to consider a superb surprise a good thing. 
  • If the truth is a superb surprise, then it seems Dickinson considers it a good thing. If it's a good thing, then why can't it be delivered directly? Well, good or bad, the truth can pack a pretty powerful punch, party people. So regardless of the fact that the truth, in this poem, is considered a positive thing, it still needs to be dealt out in a careful manner. 
  • One last thing before we head on: did you notice any kind of regular rhythm and rhyme to these first four lines? Lines 1 and 3 should sound like daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM, while lines 2 and 4 are more daDUM daDUM daDUM. Don't worry; there's a method to all this daDUMing madness. Check out "Form and Meter" for more.
  • As well, notice that lines 2 and 4 have perfect end rhyme ("lies" and "surprise"), while lines 1 and 3 have a very slight slant rhyme ("slant" and "Delight"). Again, "Form and Meter" will hook you up with the deets.